There were a lot of great albums released in 2012. By far my favourite, however, was the sophomore effort by Chairlift, Something. I had adored the band since their debut album Does You Inspire You – ‘Planet Health’ was far and away my absolute favourite song of 2008 – and I was anticipating the release of their second record, which didn’t disappoint. That being said, it was a very different beast to their debut, with more polished production, pop sensibilities and, most importantly, Caroline Polachek’s less restrained vocals. Polachek is the glue that ties Chairlift together but she is also a brilliant musician in her own right. A little while back, she released her first solo album under the name Ramona Lisa: Arcadia.
As a massive fan of Polachek’s voice and her work with Chairlift, I obviously jumped at the album as soon as it was released. But since then I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe it as an album. I recently started working voluntarily for The 405 and as part of a small test to see whether I’d be a good fit for the site, I was asked to detail my five favourite albums of the year so far. St. Vincent, tU-nE-yArDs, Warpaint and Metronomy also made my list and I had no problems figuring out something short to say about their work. Arcadia posed something of a challenge; I felt unable to truly compare the album to any of Chairlift’s works but also felt trapped by Polachek’s association with the band. I ended up comparing Polachek to Cameron Mesirow – aka the indomitable Glasser – because I felt the pair had something in common and it avoided me having to say ‘it’s different to Chairlift because…’
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s really possible to review this album without addressing the elephant in the room, so I might as well get it out of the way: don’t under any circumstances approach Arcadia thinking you’re going to get a carbon copy of Chairlift.
Now that’s out of the way, I can safely say that Arcadia is one of the most enchanting records I’ve heard in a long, long time. Okay, since Glasser’s sophomore effort last year anyway. However, despite Mesirow and Polachek inhabiting the same universe, they occupy very different galaxies. While Mesirow’s work is becoming increasingly polished and explores grand subjects with a finesse and elegance, Polachek takes surreal and miniature themes and manipulates them in a vortex of DIY crackles and obscure sounds.
The opener, also the title track, suggests a more orchestral direction for the artist, starting with echoing church bells and a lo-fi, reverberating, bass-laden beat. ‘Hissing Pipes at Dawn,’ an instrumental interlude, is staccato, gothic and manages to balance the synthetic use of MIDIs with more organic sounds. It’s this kind of interlude and orchestral composition that has lead some people to criticise the album as being ‘pretentious.’ In comparison to what, I’m not sure. Chairlift aren’t exactly known for being unpretentious: their debut album was experimentally lo-fi and high concept at the same time, while Something included a single sung entirely in Japanese and a number of false endings, wistful interludes and odd constructions amongst the shiny pop exterior. So I find it surprising that Polachek is being labelled as ‘pretentious’ now – I don’t know if this is because she is riding solo, which would be incredibly sad, or the fact that a lot of her work on this album was produced while being an artist-in-residence in Rome. To be honest the album wouldn’t properly function without these introspective moments, and to dismiss them as being ‘pretentious’ is a little short-sighted and negates the work and theory behind Ramona Lisa’s work.
‘Backwards and Upwards’ is more reminiscent of her work with Chairlift, but the swirling, arpeggiated synths and the almost new-wave inspired melody sets it apart from her previous work. The glassy, kaleidoscopic synths that accompany the track are blissful and lend the track an ethereal edge. ‘Izzit True What They Tell Me’ progresses from being a bittersweet ditty to a melange of beats, vocal loops and distorted, fuzzy noises. ‘Lady’s Got Gills’ sees Polachek at her smoothest, moving with a deft touch alongside vocal harmonies and luscious melodies.
I would be remiss not to give mention to Polachek’s singing. Her voice, which is often silky smooth on her band’s records, twists between gorgeously operatic and grounded in art-pop constantly on this record. ‘Wings of the Parapet’ shows off her vocals at their most hauntingly beautiful. Although I’m not completely sold on the actual construction of the track, I’m continually drawn to how soaring and theatrical Polachek’s voice is on this cut. This is compared to tracks such as ‘Lady’s Got Gills,’ where she displays a sophisticated nonchalance reminiscent of Sade. She does wonders with her voice but unlike artists such as Merrill Garbus and Camille – who bend their voice in unnatural ways so that the audience really notices the craft – Polachek’s skipping between airily operatic and sophisticatedly silky seems so natural. She doesn’t strain her voice; the sounds that she produces are totally organic.
Arcadia is also brilliantly intimate. Though many of the songs it employs are synthetic, Polachek has taken numerous steps to give her solo album a really human and close feeling. Much of this has to do with how the album was recorded; Polachek recorded directly into her laptop with no external microphones or equipment for aid. She sang straight into her laptop in various locations, including airport gates, hotel closets and dressing rooms while on Chairlift’s world tour. This not only explains the very DIY and rustic feel of the production (it often sounds as if the album is crackling and skipping like a demo tape) but also some of the very random noises you can hear if you listen to the album through headphones. Sometimes there’s clapping, other times announcements, even the beeping of a mobile phone’s carrier clashing with an internet connection. This lends the album much of its homemade charm. Both ‘Dominic’ and ‘Getaway Ride’ would be far too unpolished for anyone else’s tastes. But alongside Polachek’s sweet and sincere vocals, the crackly production and fuzzy exteriors seem infinitely purer and more like she is singing from the heart.
What bugs me the most about this album is that it’s not a good listen in the summer, which irks me at the minute. I am having to wait until past 10.30pm to give it the justice it deserves, because Arcadia is best listened to in the dark, by a warm yet artificial light. It’s by no means a chilly or cold album but it’s introspective and reflective enough to warrant a solid listening under the cover of darkness. The wonders of this album don’t contrast well with the sun but if you can wait until the stars battle with the orange glow of street lamps, then Arcadia can be the perfect twilight soundtrack.